Thursday, March 10, 2011

Private Lives (1931)
























I'm just going to go ahead and say it: Noel Coward inadvertently created the genre of screwball comedy. When his stage play, Private Lives was being made into a film, he advised director, Sidney Franklin, to keep things moving along. In response Franklin turned in a comedy so blisteringly fast that its rapid fire dialog to competes with the infamous His Girl Friday. I had to watch many sections of this film twice to make sure I caught all the quips. I'm sure that, like Friday, it will reward multiple viewings. Not only is Private Lives fast, it's loud, shrill, and full of pratfalls and impossibly mixed-up situations. All it's missing is an escaped fugitive in a roll-top desk.

Until I watched Private Lives, I thought Noel Coward was all about cocktails in the drawing room and biting sarcasm. He is, but, apparently he's also about full body tackles and insulting one's mother-in-law with a viciousness that would make Walter Burns blush. Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer play Elliot and Amanda, an English couple who have divorced after a series of violent rows. They both remarry and end up honeymooning in the same hotel in the South of France. Their adjacent rooms share a veranda, so it is inevitable that an awkward confrontation and, eventually, a reconciliation will follow. All of the action is compressed into three days, so Coward can be forgiven for packing a decade's worth of arguments into an hour and a half. Elliot and Amanda are loathsome characters, selfish and obnoxious, but they are also a lot of fun. I don't think I could take much more than 90 minutes of their carrying on, though.

Coward's outlook on love is bleak; if Private Lives weren't so dang funny, it would be depressing. In his worldview, passion is a miserable roller coaster of blissful kisses and socks to the jaw. This drunken slugfest can be difficult to watch. Take out the jokes and you'd have a Lifetime movie, or a TMZ expose on Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

The acting is uniformly excellent. The new spouses are played by sadly forgotten Pre-Code bombshell, Una Merkel and stalwart, supporting actor Reginald Denny. And the leads, though miscast as English, are wonderful. Montgomery looks completely at ease as an unchivalrous cad and his role in Private Lives reminds me of my favorite Montgomery performance in Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Speaking of which Norma Shearer seems to have gone to the Carole Lombard School of Meltdowns. Yeah, I had to mute her a few times, but even Lombard, the unquestionable queen of the spoiled rich female temper tantrum, could occasionally cross that line. I'm sure I never let the remote out of my hand while watching Twentieth Century.

Shearer is an able comedian and she brings star quality to the table as well. When Elliot declares that Amanda is the most thrilling, fascinating woman every born, you can't help but think the same applies to the actress playing her. If nothing else there is her habit of forgetting to wear a bra which is in evidence in a couple of scenes in Private Lives. I predict that Shearer will gain a whole new following if her filmography is ever transferred to Blu-Ray.

Thanks to Classic Movie Favorites for the stills.

23 comments:

California Girl said...

Nice review on a play I've seen on stage but am unsure if I've seen this movie version. I like both actors however so it would be a pleasure to watch.

You reference "His Girl Friday" and this film's rapid fire dialog delivery. We watched "The Social Network", screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, and I thought about the rapid fire delivery of that dialog and juxtaposed it to "His Girl Friday". I realized it wasn't a new technique, just revisited. It requires discipline and quiet to take it in. I like that.

Jennythenipper said...

I hadn't heard that about TSN. I'm intrigued! I'll have to check it out when it comes on DVD.

I highly recommend this version. Pre-codes could be tricky as far as sound quality went, but Norma's brother was a sound tech on her movies and they are always good. It's important when the dialog is so fast.

Audrey said...

I'm with you on Carole Lombard's shrillness in Twentieth Century. It was more than I could take. :P

SteveQ said...

I once made a list of recommended films for a woman I knew and His Girl Friday was on the list; she was a Chinese immigrant and just couldn't follow the dialog (which may explain her fondness for Bullitt!) - a bit much to ask, I guess, even with subtitles. I remember as a kid having to watch Marx Brothers movies twice to catch all the jokes I missed while I was laughing.

I'ma big Norma Shearer fan (Moira Shearer, too, for that matter).

Sarah said...

Private Lives is awesome! I think it's my favoite of Norma Shearer's work. When she and Montgomery have escaped their significant others and holed away in a cabin- that fight scene is the very best!Hilarious!
And you're right, if you took the comedy out of it, it would be completely different. Montgomery would be more scary than he was in Night Must Fall.

Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennythenipper said...

Steve are Moira and Norma related? If you like Moira you will enjoy an upcoming post on the Red Shoes. Cheesecake!

Sara: I think it was my favorite Norma Shearer film so far as well. I thinks it's too bad she did so little comedy.

Lady Gwynyfwar said...

Love Norma Shearer! Love this movie! It's one of my all-time favorites.

Lolita Kane said...

Here ya go, a Stylish Blog Award!

Moira Finnie said...

Your consistently witty and insightful blogs on classic movies have prompted me to give you The Stylish Blogger Award. You can read details of this honor at the link below. Thanks so much for maintaining such a distinctive spot among the classic film blogs.
Cordially,
Moira

http://moirasthread.blogspot.com/2011/03/allegedly-stylish.html

SteveQ said...

If I say Moira and Norma Shearer are the aunts of Harry Shearer, would you be gullible enough to believe me?

Looking forward to the Red Shoes. Powell and Pressburger could do no wrong in my book. Now, if you could bring back Tonto and Tarzan to do the review, that'd be fantastic. Tonto like'm red moccasin.

Jennythenipper said...

OMG, Steve that is genius. I'll do it right now. My poor editor. She's gonna rip her hair out. Ha Ha. I'm so mean.

SteveQ said...

Following Rupert Pupkin Speaks yet again, I did a film list:
http://stevequick.blogspot.com/2011/04/alphabetical-cinema.html

SteveQ said...

Did it again. A film list only I could do

http://stevequick.blogspot.com/2011/04/movies-doctors-with-extra-body-parts.html

H A R R Y G O A Z said...

WONDERFUL film !!!

SteveQ said...

I finally gave in and started a film blog.
http://watchitanyway.blogspot.com/

SteveQ said...

I started my own film blog, but I started it on Thursday, the day Blogger lost everything, so it disappeared (along with the comment here directing you to it). If it reappears or when I restart, I'll let you know.

missy said...

Hi there,

Just wanted to say thank you for all the wonderful posts and photos you've done on Herbert Marshall.
I am a HUGE fan and never seem to find too much on him around. Especially loved the album you did for him on photobucket:)

I noticed he was also on your favorite (most swoon-worthy) actors list. Mine, too!

thanks!
missy

Manic Minx said...

thanks for sharing this, i'd like to check these out sometime :)

SteveQ said...

Trying it again: starting my reviews of 8000 plus films at
http://watchitanyway.blogspot.com/

Kailey said...

These pictures are just gorgeous - definitely adding this film to my "Must Watch" list, thank you!

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